With around 100 million small arms and light weapons in circulation, Africa accounts for some of the highest rates of arms proliferation globally. Most of these arms are illegally acquired and possessed by civilians, including non-state armed groups and individuals. This has resulted in deadly and elongated crises with high fatalities and has a strong link to transnational criminal violence, enlistment of child soldiers, and humanitarian violations, such as rape and kidnapping.
The recurring violent attacks have thrown many communities into a state of anarchy, disorderliness and confusion. Some villages and towns have been overrun and taken over by deadly armed militia and rebel groups, with economic activities totally crumbled. Despite efforts by various stakeholders to bring lasting peace, many regions daily sink lower in this quagmire, resulting in wanton killings and destructions of people’s livelihoods with reckless abandon.
It is worth noting that arms themselves are not necessarily the root cause of the conflicts daily experienced in various African communities. Most of these crises are inherent in political, religious and ethnic ideologies. However, it is no doubt that the proliferation of arms is a major factor elongating and exacerbating most of these crises. The easy access to illicit weapons has strengthened and emboldened most terrorist and rebel groups and encouraged various new militia groups.
Religious and Ethnic Crises
Africa is currently an epicentre for ethnoreligious violence and persecution that have resulted in thousands of deaths. In Nigeria, for instance, a timeline of armed religious crises from 1980 to date shows that the conflicts are mostly between the Christian and Muslim communities. Most of them occurred in the northern part of the country, predominantly Muslim populations, with Christian minorities. One of the bloodiest in history happened in December 1980 and was spearheaded by an Islamic group called the Maitatsine sect. The crisis claimed more than 4000 lives within a few days it lasted. After that, the country always witnessed a series of other religiously motivated conflicts between the 1980s and 2000s.
But none of them caused as many humanitarian crises as being witnessed today due to the ongoing onslaughts by Boko Haram – Africa’s most deadly terrorist group, which emerged around 2010. Started as a group of local fighters in the northeastern part of the country, Boko Haram has become one of the four deadliest terrorist groups in the world. It yearly accounts for most of the violent cases that have earned Nigeria the third spot on the latest global terrorism index.
The group has leveraged the proliferation of arms in Nigeria and the neighbouring African countries to grow its arms stockpiles and become emboldened enough to confront the militaries in the Lake Chad Basin region. The region comprises Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Reports show that the militias have overrun fixed sites of battalions and companies in all four countries. In 2018, Boko Haram, along with some other militia groups terrorizing the northern part of the country, accounted for 78% of armed crises and 86% of terrorist-related deaths in Nigeria. Between 2010 to date, the daredevil group has killed more than 36,000 and displaced about 2.4 million people.
Another deadly and lingering religiously motivated armed crisis on the continent is the rivalry between the anti-Balaka and Seleka groups in the Central African Republic (CAR). It all started in 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels installed their fellow northern Muslim, Michel Djotodia as president, after toppling the then president Francois Bozizé, a Christian from the south.
The action led to the rise of the anti-Balaka group formed by the Christians south, which later overpowered the Seleka and forced Djotodia’s resignation. The event has caused recurring armed conflicts in the country, leading to an estimated 3,000 to 6000 deaths within one year after it started. According to a United Nations report, 99% of Muslims in the country’s capital, Bangui, were either killed or forcefully displaced. Just like other Africa’s war-torn zones, rebel groups in CAR benefit from various sources of illicit arms, including the influx of arms from other countries such as Sudan.
Somalia is another country with a seemingly unending religiously motivated crisis. Made of 99% of Muslims, there has been serious persecution of Christians in the country who have been forced to practice their faith in secret. The Islamic terrorist group in Somalia, Al-Shabab, has killed 4,000 people in the past decade. The conflict has also exacerbated the refugee crisis in the continent, as many displaced victims now take shelter in neighbouring countries.
Politically Motivated Conflicts
Political violence is another form of recurring armed crisis in Africa. With power and influence disproportionately centralized in public offices, many African politicians view politics as a do or die affair and are willing to kill and maim to get to and hold on power. For this reason, there is hardly any election in some of these countries without bloodshed. Since the 2000s, electoral violence has become a growing pattern on the continent.
In the last general election in Uganda, various violent cases were recorded. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities frustrated activities from the opposition parties, beat, harassed and shot at journalists. From the campaigns to the election and post-election activities, the whole process was marred by violence, leading to dozens of deaths.
Some of the deadliest electoral crises in Africa have occurred in Nigeria. For instance, in the 2011 general election, more than 800 people were killed after a protest erupted from the supporters of the second runner up and opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, who is now president. The conflict lasted for three days and displaced more than 65,000 people in the northern part of the country. Similarly, the 2019 general election also had its fair share of armed crises, which led to many deaths. Also, in the aftermath of the Guinea general election in 2020, more than 20 people were killed.
The situation is similar in Ghana 2020 presidential election that recorded 5 deaths and about 21 violent cases. Other countries like Cote d’Ivoire, CAR, Democratic Republic of Congo, Algeria, Sudan, and Mali have also experienced various degrees of political violence.
Sources of Illicit Arms in Africa
Militia and rebel groups in Africa get their weapons from multiple sources, which have both internal and foreign connections. Most of these illicit weapons are flown or shipped from other continents. A report showed that they mostly originated from China, Israel, and more than 20 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) members. They are either from the remnants of large-scale arms shipments to rebel movements during the Cold War or recent supplies from the sanctions-busting shipments by the globe-trotting arms brokers, the so-called “merchants of death” who specialize in delivering weapons to war zones and dictators.
The illicit dealings between foreign and African arms traffickers date back many decades. During Charles Taylor’s reign as Liberian president in the early 2000s, a large proportion of China-made weapons transferred to Liberia was facilitated by a Dutchman, Gus van Kouwenhoven, who was later convicted for the illegal dealings. Kouwenhoven operated two logging companies in which President Charles Taylor had a financial interest. The businesses were used to facilitate war crimes during the civil war in 1999-2003.
Some European dealers were also strongly involved in trafficking arms to the troubled Niger Delta part of Nigeria during the resource control crisis between indigenous militants from the region and the federal government. The combatants held the government to ransom and attacked various oil facilities in the region, using the illicit arms supplied from foreign sources, many of which are sophisticated weapons. Other African countries, including Ghana, Madagascar, Kenya, Namibia, Niger, and Sierra Leone, also have a substantial concentration of foreign-made weapons illicitly transferred to those nations.
Apart from the foreign illegal arms movement, there is also an intra-continental circulation within and across various African borders. This includes locally manufactured weapons, such as firearms, small bombs, and grenades. Many African countries are known for their homemade artisanal manufacturing of weapons illegally produced by local blacksmiths. Ghana is one of the countries with a high concentration of such weapons, with an estimated locally manufactured 35,000 to 40,000 guns, based on a 2004 survey.
Another source is the diversion of legally acquired arms from security agents to militias and rebels. It has been reported that some security officials secretly sell arms and ammunition to terrorists in exchange for money. Many African countries have poor remuneration packages for their security agents, making many law enforcement officers engage in different kinds of shady, corrupt dealings, including selling arms to criminals, for survival.
Some Nigerian soldiers have been arrested on various occasions for illegally selling arms to members of the Boko Haram terrorist group. This act of sabotage and sheer corruption has also been pointed as a major factor in prolonging the war. Some Ethiopian and Ugandan soldiers working with AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia) were reported to be involved in an illicit arms trade in Somalia, selling from their weapons stockpiles to black market dealers.
During the unrest in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, some poorly paid Nigerian soldiers who had served in various peacekeeping missions in African countries often returned home and sold their weapons to Niger Delta combatants or illegal arms dealers, a researcher revealed.
The African Union Commission recently launched the Silencing the Gun campaign aimed at stopping the illegal circulation of weapons and curbing all forms of armed conflicts in the continent. While this is commendable, of more importance is the willpower to back the campaign with action. Political leaders must pay attention to the various widening social inequalities that make the bearing of arms attractive to the youths. Africa has about 600 million uneducated, unemployed or underemployed youths. Creating an enabling environment for these young people will go a long way in curbing arms proliferation and bringing lasting peace to the continent.